We celebrate Epiphany this weekend. Epiphany is often taken to signify the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles with the visit of the Magi (See Matthew 2). As the story in Matthew’s Gospel discloses, the Magi from the East pursued a star that led them to where the young child Jesus and his parents lived. When they found him, the Magi presented gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. We can learn a great deal about what and why we worship based on this account.
We will not discuss the possible symbolism of the gifts in this post. Rather, we will focus only on the giving of gifts. Why did the Magi present the child with gifts? Was it based on what he had accomplished as “King of the Jews”? Was it because King Herod, and the peoples in the region celebrated him as “King of the Jews”? (See Matthew 2:2). No, if anything, when Herod and the people of Jerusalem heard their announcement, they were “troubled”. In other words, Jesus was not welcome. Here’s the full context:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
It does not appear that Herod expressed even the slightest sense to the Magi of his emotional disturbance over the news that the king of the Jews had been born. It was only after the Magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod that they realized that Herod was not pleased with their report.
As the rest of Matthew 2 reveals, Herod intended to have the child killed (Matthew 2:13-18). Herod was given to fits of jealousy and deception, and would do anything to secure and strengthen his hold on power. The massacre of the children two years of age and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity was consistent with his character and intrigues in his later years (Refer here).
Why, you ask, would Herod care about some small child? What threat could a boy from Bethlehem pose to a mighty king in Jerusalem? It is because Herod now had competition as king. Perhaps Herod’s own lack of rightful claim to the throne made things worse for him. After all, his appointment came from Rome, unlike Jesus, whose recognition came from the God of Israel. Further to this point, Jesus was no mere child. Herod feared that this child was the Messiah based on the Magi’s report. And so, he inquired of his own religious authorities where the Messiah was to be born. Their response only confirmed his suspicions: the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The religious leaders informed Herod of Micah’s prophecy:
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel (See Matthew 2:6; ESV).
If they had known about it, I doubt Herod’s hostility would have kept the Magi from coming to worship Jesus. They had probably endured many obstacles and challenges along the way in their spiritual pilgrimage. What drove them forward was the star and their awareness that the child who was born king of the Jews was worthy of worship.
How can a child be worthy of worship? It was not based on Jesus’ performance given how young he was at the time. Nor was his worthiness based on star power and fame. His parents, the shepherds and a few others like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth may have been Jesus’ only real admirers up to this time. Moreover, his worthiness was not based on being born into nobility nor affluence. In contrast to all these motivations, the Magi found Jesus worthy of worship because of the claims associated with him. Jesus was born a king, the Messiah, a being worthy of worship independent of performance, fame, and social status and wealth.
We learn a lot about the Magi’s character based on who they worshiped and why. Just like Epiphany, which means manifestation, their supreme regard for Jesus manifests not only Jesus but also themselves. They worshiped Jesus based on their understanding of his identity and inherent worth. They listened to God rather than people, just as they obeyed the warning in the vision not to return to Herod rather than follow Herod’s instruction to come back and tell him where they child was (Matthew 2:8, 12).
In our day, we often worship based on performance, celebrity, or status and riches. These various rationales for worship manifest or say as much about us as they do about the objects of our worship. Like King Herod, or much later in Matthew’s Gospel, the rich young ruler (See Matthew 19), we miss out on the manifestation of Jesus in our midst. At best, we settle for moralistic therapeutic deities whose daily performance are subject to our review: “What have you done for me lately, God?”
When such motives shape and drive our worship, we often sell our souls to the highest bidder. This value system fails to account for the Bible’s teaching on what is valuable, and falls far short of the Magi—Gentile outsiders from the East who came to worship the one born King of the Jews. If these Gentile outsiders from afar got the point, shouldn’t we who know the Bible better be even more discerning?
Based on Scripture and the Magi, it is important that we value the Creator and creation based on inherent value rather than external considerations and what we attribute to them. Otherwise, not only do we cheapen the Creator and creation, but also cheapen and shortchange ourselves. With this in mind, I close with a striking statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who takes us back to the high value the Jewish faith places on the Creator and creation, which are never subject to market preference and supply and demand:
The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. And this fundamental insight of Judaism is all the more striking given its respect for the market within the marketplace. The fatal conceit for Judaism is to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it in fact governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns the goods we think of as being subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself. And there are things that we may not exchange, however high the price. Jonathan Sacks, “Markets and Morals,” in First Things, August 2000.
To build on Sachs’ concern, it is not only Judaism’s “fatal conceit,” but Christianity’s, too. Thank God that the Magi or Jesus’ parents did not offer up Jesus in exchange for their own safety or status in Herod’s court.